Our Town is a 1940 film adaptation of a play of the same name by Thornton Wilder starring William Holden, Martha Scott, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell, Guy Kibbee and Frank Craven. It was adapted by Harry Chandlee, Craven and Wilder. It was directed by Sam Wood. The movie was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Scott, who repeated her stage role as Emily Webb, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, and Aaron Copland was nominated for Best Score. This film is in the public domain.
September 27, 2008
One of the great plays brought to the large screen
Our Town is one of the great plays, written by Thornton Wilder with the original title, "Our Town - A Play in 3 acts".
Wilder previously wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey, his second novel, published in 1927 to worldwide acclaim. The plot is deceptively simple: On July 20, 1714, "the finest bridge in all Peru" collapses and five people die. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan missionary, happens to witness the tragedy, and as a result, he asks the central question of the novel: "Why did this happen to those five?" He sets out to explore the lives of the five victims, and to understand why they died. Ironically, his quest will lead to his own death. In later years, when someone asked Thornton Wilder about his purpose in writing THE BRIDGE, he replied that he was posing a question: "Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual's own will?"
Mr. Wilder also wrote The Merchant of Yonkers (it's worth reading the how Mr. Wilder wrote the story), which became a short-lived play on Broadway (39 performances), and eventually was re-worked and re-written as The Matchmaker, a comedy filled with mistaken identities, secret rendezvous obscured by screens and hidden behind doors, separated lovers, exciting twists and turns, and a light, bantering tone, a farce that looks like a wild, chaotic romp, however Wilder built The Matchmaker on firm, grounded foundcaton and, despite appearances, Wilder had the farce under control. In 1964, Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart adapted The Matchmaker into the 1964 Broadway success Hello, Dolly!, a more streamlined version of what Mr. Wilder wrote. The stage play starred Carol Channing, among others, and the play was later made into the movie of the same name, starring Barbra Streisand.
As a play, Our Town is one of the most frequently staged American plays. It is an unconventional work in that it has no scenery or props except for tables, chairs, ladders, and a few other objects. When actors dine, they hold imaginary utensils and eat imaginary food. When looking out an upper-story window, they stand on ladders. When the milkman makes deliveries from his horse-drawn cart, there is no horse or cart, although the audience may hear clip-clops or whinnies. And so goes the entire play. Mr. Wilder presented the play in this way to force the audience to concentrate on the characters and the themes.
Wilder also wrote a narrator into the play. Called “the stage manager,” who supervises the placement of the chairs and tables at the beginning of the play–hence, his title. He also introduces the play and its setting, looking back from his 1930's vantage point to the year when the drama begins, 1901. From time to time, he interrupts the play to comment on the action or to inform the audience about a character’s background. Early on, he even speaks with members of the audience.
It's not giving away anything to say the following, because if you're familiar with the play or movie, you already know it, and if you're not, this doesn't take away anything from the great acting/great role for actors and actresses.
The action takes place in the fictional town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, just north of the Massachusetts line, between 1901 and 1913 . (However, one of the central characters–the stage manager–exists in the 1930's. While describing the town and its characters and commenting on the action, he flashes back and forth between the early part of the 20th Century and the 1930's.) Grover's Corners serves as a microcosm; it is the world condensed into a small community with characters reflecting the hopes and dreams, the failures and successes, of people everywhere.
Peterborough as Model
Peterborough, N.H., may have been the model for Grover's Corners, a conclusion reached by some townspeople after Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town there while he was in residence at the MacDowell Colony, a famous retreat for several hundred composers, writers, and painters. Pianist Marian Nevins MacDowell and her husband, composer Edward Alexander MacDowell, founded the colony in 1907 at Peterborough, located in southern New Hampshire about 15 miles north of the Massachusetts border.
The climax of Our Town occurs when the deceased Emily returns to life briefly in the final act to visit Grover's Corners. Her experience is bittersweet, making her realize the importance of simple, ordinary events that make up the patterns of life.
Regarding the themes of the play (and, subseaquently, the movie):
Theme 1: People should appreciate life while they are living it. Even ordinary, uneventful activities are important. Indeed, they might be the most important activities of all–whether they involve smelling flowers, eating breakfast, chatting with the milkman or the paperboy, or looking out the window at the moon.
Theme 2: Carpe diem (seize the day). This Latin phrase, which has become part of the English language, urges people to live for the moment, seizing opportunities to enjoy or enrich their lives. Life is short, after all; such opportunities may present themselves only once. This is an old literary motif, written about many times over the centuries. The Roman poet Horace (65-8 B.C.) coined the phrase carpe diem in Book 1 of his famous odes, when he advised people to “seize the day, put no trust in tomorrow!” English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) repeated the sentiment in a memorable poem:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old time is still a-flying,
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
In Our Town, Wilder reminds the audience again and again that time is “a-flying” with references to passing trains–which, like life, move swiftly forward–and with references to the generations of Grover’s Corners residents who have come and gone. The flowers in the gardens of Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb are still another reminder: Smell and appreciate them now, for they will not last long. So is Professor Willard’s boring speech about the geological and anthropological developments in the vicinity of Grover's Corners thousands of years ago. The wheel of history and its life cycles spins rapidly. However, "seizing the day" does not necessarily mean that people need to pursue lofty enterprises or careers or to run off to see the world. George Gibbs seizes the day by choosing to marry Emily rather than going to agricultural school. Mrs. Gibbs seizes the day by accepting the simple life of Grover's Corners rather than insisting that her husband go on vacation with her to the city of her dreams, Paris.
Theme 3: Little things in life are really big things. This theme points out that seemingly insignificant happenings in everyday life are actually among the most important ones. However, people experiencing them usually do not comprehend this truth at the time, as Emily observes in the cemetery when she says to Mrs. Gibbs, “They don’t understand, do they?
Theme 4: No town can isolate itself from the rest of the world. Grover's Corners is a pleasant, easygoing community that seems to be a separate world unto itself. But it is not. Rather, it spins on the same axis as the rest of the world and is subject to the same influences affecting outsiders. Its residents read Shakespeare and The New York Times. Trains going to Boston pass through regularly. And there comes a time when Ford cars replace horses and people begin to lock their doors, just like their big-city counterparts. Joe Crowell Jr., dies in World War I. English poet John Donne wrote in 1624:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Grover's Corners is not an island. And when
he bell tolls for Emily at the end of the play, it tolls for everyone.
Theme 5: No community is perfect, not even idyllic Grover's Corners. Grover's Corners has its town drunk, Simon Stimson, whom Mrs. Soames says is a "scandal." Believing life is not worth living, he commits suicide. Grover's Corners also apparently has a form of segregation, for there is a "ghetto," Polish town, where Polish-American Catholics live.
Why the play is popular (leading to the movie and the movie's popularity) is interesting.
Our Town is a favorite at many playhouses mainly because its setting and characters are so much like ordinary towns around the United States–and the rest of the world. Also, it has the one ingredient necessary for a literary work to become great: universality. Its themes apply to everyone everywhere. In addition, its simple mise-en-scène–a nearly bare stage with only a few props and no backdrops–makes it easy to produce. The absence of scenery also underscores the universal themes, inasmuch as there are no representations of structures or landscapes associated with specific locales. Grover’s Corners could be anywhere.
Bottom line: See it. See the movie, see the play (and see the play repeatedly; every stage presentation is different and many are much better than others). Read the book. It will be time well spent.